5 Questions for Zooligans’ Joel Rusnak

Joel Rusnak is taking another walk on the wild side.

The designer, who is the original creator of the Polliwalks line, has partnered with Bedford, Mass.-based children’s brand Roc-A-Bouts to launch a collection of animal-themed shoes called Zooligans.

Targeted to toddlers, the line includes Mary Jane shoes for girls and fisherman sandals for boys, detailed in an array of colorful animal designs including a panda, alligator, monkey, dog and raccoon. The shoes are packaged in boxes that can be converted into pet carriers to hold kids’ shoes or their favorite stuffed animals. Each pair also comes with a tag that tells a short educational story about the respective animal.

Rusnak, who has a background in toy design, said that with Zooligans, he hopes to bring more fun to children’s footwear. “There is a play factor involved [with Zooligans] that sparks kids’ imaginations,” he said. “Brands sometimes discount the strong role that emotion plays in customers’ purchasing decisions. It’s important that the child is as excited to wear a pair of shoes as their parents are to buy them.”

Priced at $45, Zooligans are made of leather uppers and flexible, athletic-inspired bottoms with a playful paw design. The line is slated to launch in stores in late April, with distribution focused on better department stores, e-tailers and independents. To get the word out, the brand is planning a grassroots marketing campaign, which will be led by Rusnak’s wife and business partner, Cheryl Andonian. The effort will focus heavily on social media.

And shoes are just the beginning of the Zooligans story. Rusnak said he aims to extend the brand into a variety of other categories. “I see possibilities in everything,” he said. “The sky’s the limit.”

What have you learned from your experiences designing for kids in the past?
JR:
I’ve designed many different types of products, from [children’s] toys to cat play structures to swing sets to footwear. [I’ve learned that] in the kids’ market, it’s important to stay in touch with your playful side. I tried to create Zooligans from the perspective of a child. They are not just shoes to kids; they are like animal companions [for the] feet. For the packaging, I wanted to make the shoebox useful. We were hearing from retailers that often customers don’t even want to take the box home when they buy shoes. So I started fooling around with this idea of transforming the shoebox into something playful that had a connection to the product. And presto, the pet carrier evolved.

There are other animal-inspired shoes in the market. Is it a challenge to stand out from your competitors?
JR:
It’s a combination of elements: detailing, such as the cut-out teeth and the straps that look like collars; the [overall] cute factor; the quality materials; and [functional] constructions. But it’s also about individual style. Every designer has their own personal style, and the Zooligans line reflects my unique approach to creating characters for kids.

How are you protecting the brand from copycats?
JR:
We have trademarks, copyrights and patents in the works for the things that can be protected, but no matter what you do, there are always going to be copycats. I really believe the best defense is to keep innovating. The way I see it, creating product [is either about] imitating what already exists or innovating what has yet to come. Imitators will always be there — that will never change. But if we stay one step ahead and lead through creativity rather than following through imitation, the copycats will always be at least one step behind.

Getting a foothold today can be difficult for small startup brands. How has partnering with Roc-A-Bouts given you an advantage?
JR:
Roc-A-Bouts already has an established infrastructure with a strong sales team and a solid system for operations and distribution. They also have great factory relationships and the resources to make this happen. That allows us to do what we do best, which is the product, creative and branding. [We were able to] plug into the machine that Roc-A-Bouts already has up and running. Because of this, we did in a few months what would have taken [a typical startup] at least a year. It’s been a supercharged startup experience.

How will you evolve the brand?
JR:
For fall, we will have some new [animal] profiles coming out, as well as a line of soft-sole infant shoes. We’re starting out with footwear, but there really is no limit to where Zooligans can go. I envision the brand morphing into a number of different products and accessories, such as lunch bags, backpacks, hats and mittens. I see possibilities in everything [and] have some pretty cool ideas and concepts in the pipeline.

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